Deep search: Tech-enabled discoveries of underwater treasures

Updated on Jul 23, 2022 12:59 AM IST

Ocean-going robots, innovative diving suits and high-accuracy sonar scans are changing the way we dive into the past in the hunt for ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities

In 2007, the Underwater Archaeology Wing of the ASI started a detailed excavation off the coast of Gujarat in search of the sunken city of Dwarka. (ASI) PREMIUM
In 2007, the Underwater Archaeology Wing of the ASI started a detailed excavation off the coast of Gujarat in search of the sunken city of Dwarka. (ASI)

A late addition to the field of archaeology has been undersea exploration. This is a field barely six decades old, dating to the invention of scuba-diving equipment in the 1940s. The first scientific underwater archaeology expedition is generally considered to be the 1960 one undertaken by American archaeologist George Bass, who recovered artefacts from submerged ships dating to the Bronze Age, off the coast of Turkey. He used underwater cameras and metal detectors to bring ashore ancient axes, picks and shovels. He would come to be known as the father of nautical archaeology after he set up an institute dedicated to the subject at Texas A&M University in 1972. Now, as technology for exploring the deep seas improves, archaeologists are using it to make stunning new finds and better understand earlier discoveries.

The Antikythera shipwreck (c 60 BCE): Greek sponge divers first stumbled upon the wreck in 1900, and marvellous statues and works of art were recovered. Among these is what is considered the world’s oldest analog computer, the Antikythera mechanism. The ancient Greek mechanical device relied on astronomy and mathematics to track the position of planets with respect to the sun and to predict eclipses.

In 2012, new dives were conducted using closed-circuit re-breathers (that let divers stay deep undersea for longer), high-resolution cameras and diver propulsion vehicles, which documented a second wreck at the site. In 2014, special exo-suits allowed divers to descend over 1,000 ft and stay for hours. Last month, researchers also used a balloon system created by the Swiss watchmaker Hublot, to lift underwater boulders out of the way. On these expeditions (part of an extended, ongoing programme by the Swiss School of Archaeology in Greece, University of Geneva, and the Greek government), divers have recovered anchors, spikes, ceramic bowls and a marble head believed to be from a 2,000-year-old statue of Hercules. In the next phase, Hublot is set to design robots by 2023 that will replace human divers, stay underwater longer, and relay data and analytics back to shore in real time.

Pavlopetri (c 3000 BCE): Discovered and first mapped in the 1960s, this site lies off the coast of southern Greece and is considered the world’s oldest submerged city. It consists of ruins of homes and other structures, clearly marked courtyards and streets, graves and rock-cut tombs. In 2009, the Pavlopetri Underwater Archaeology Project (an initiative of University of Nottingham and the Greek ministry of culture) used a robotic total station that logged the position of the artefacts with high accuracy and sector-scan sonar mapping that surveyed the submerged town and created a digital reconstruction of the structural ruins within it. Using CGI they built a digital approximation of the 5,000 year old city, with two-storey houses, walled courtyards, well-defined streets and a cemetery outside the city. Scattered all over the site, submerged in the seabed were hundreds of pithoi, or large storage vessels which suggests that Pavlopetri was a centre for commerce.

Dwarka: The search for the legendary sunken city mentioned in the epic Mahabharata began in 1981 and continued for two decades, during which over 500 artefacts were recovered off the coast of Gujarat. In 2007, underwater archaeologist Alok Tripathi led a detailed excavation by the Underwater Archaeology Wing (UAW) of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The team used multi-beam echo-sounders to map the seabed and divers found stone structures such as pillars and anchors that established it as an ancient port. After being non-operational for almost a decade, UAW hopes to begin explorations again. “India has vast unexplored seas that need to be surveyed and studied. We need to revive the underwater archaeology wing and train more people in this division,” Tripathi says.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Anesha is a features writer, sometimes a reader, who loves to eat and plan fitness goals she can never keep. She writes on food, culture and youth trends.

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